Photo courtesy of Keith Gamage
Keith volunteers as Santa Claus during the holidays in his hometown of Greenfield.
Photo Deborah Kowal
Keith enjoys motorcycle riding and his Harley Davidson Fat Boy.
Photo courtesy of Keith Gamage
One of the Lieutenant's many rides, pictured above at Mount Rushmore.
Photo Deborah Kowal
Gamage waiting for the next call and ready to roll, pictured above standing next to Greenfield's Engine 1.
Behind The Mask is devoted to firefighters, showcasing them as individuals within the realm of firefighting. Why do we do this job? What motivates us? Who are we when the mask comes off? From veterans to probies, it promises to give a little insight into our world and the people who do the job every day.
I recently sat down with Lieutenant Keith Gamage of the Greenfield Fire Department. Keith is someone who is not only a firefighter, but also is a former Marine, wearing many different hats besides working for his department.
Gamage grew up in Greenfield, graduating in 1982, before entering the Marines. He did a “brief stint” as an assistant manager at Wendy’s in town, before beginning his service at the firehouse. Gamage served at the firehouse with the House Force, a program where area college students would stay at the fire station and go on calls. Later, he took the civil service exam and due to a few members retiring; he began working at the Greenfield firehouse in July of 1988.
Besides working for the fire department he is also a security officer at the Smith College Museum of Art, is a courier for Valley Medical and works for McCarthy’s Funeral Home. Along with all of this, Gamage also plays Santa Claus for the town of Greenfield each holiday season.
He is an avid motorcycle rider and has traveled across the country on road trips numerous times on his Harley Davidson Fat Boy. Next summer he plans to ride to Monument Valley through Colorado and Utah, stopping along the way in Sturgis, South Dakota and riding the Beartooth Highway down through Yellowstone National Park.
He “putters” in the garden at his home, which has been on the local garden tour on three different occasions. There, he takes care of his perennials and hostas, which he plants mostly for the benefit of the bird population that visits his homestead daily.
One claim Gamage has to fame? He worked as an extra in the firefighting movie Ladder 49, starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix.
360° ▸ Did you always want to be a firefighter?
Keith: Not really, when I was a kid I wanted to be a park ranger.
360° ▸ Tell me about one call that has stuck with you over the years.
Keith: Well of course, the one that I got trapped in, with one other firefighter, over in what we call the Ostrich Egg building over on Bank Row. It was like an antique store, but he sold ostrich eggs so we called it that. To me that is one I will always remember, but you also remember the ones when you lose someone in a fire.
360° ▸ First fire?
Keith: I went to three fires before I went into the service. I remember the Kell’s Farm when I was on the House Force, when I got steam burns on the back of my ears. We’ve had expensive fires, the Toyota dealership fire on Osgood Street that damaged a lot of cars, that one was big bucks.
"A guy had been barbecuing chicken in his bedroom on a hibachi grill..."
360° ▸ What was your strangest call?
Keith: Probably in the 90’s. I was full time and we were going to a call for a woman in labor. Somehow the ambulance found out we had a fire on Deerfield Street. A guy had been barbecuing chicken in his bedroom on a hibachi grill. I was in the rescue truck that was ready to respond and I don’t remember how exactly, but the ambulance company called and said they were all set. So, I got on the engine and went down. The chicken fat on the grill had gone onto the carpet and he had tamped it out with a towel, threw the towel in the bathtub, and the fire had melted the fiberglass tub and it went up into the wall. We’ve had other strange ones, but that was the strangest cause of one.
360° ▸ Tell me one thing no one at the firehouse knows about you.
Keith: There really isn’t any, we are pretty open at the firehouse, everything pretty much goes. I can’t sing?
360° ▸ For the last few questions tell me the first thing that comes to your mind.
Fire alarm goes off?
Here we go.
You hear a siren?
I really don’t think about it too much, because I’ve heard sirens, it doesn’t bother me.
Coworkers at work call you?
Dad or Buzz.
Gear that you can’t go on a call without?
Your favorite meal at the firehouse?
Whatever Smitty cooks.
First thing you do when you get home?
I get cleaned up.
Prefer to work Early or late shift?
Doesn’t really matter to me, I work whenever they schedule me for.
Summer or winter?
Summer without a doubt.
What would you do if you weren’t a firefighter?
I’d ride my motorcycle.
One thing you like?
Riding my motorcycle.
One thing you hate?
People who aren’t nice to other people.
Deborah Kowal is a life-long resident of Western Mass, currently adjunct faculty teaching psychology at American International College in Springfield, and as a Security Specialist at Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton. Annual participant of local Relay for Life event as a member of Team Northampton Firefighters, writer and photography enthusiast, local runner and avid reader.
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